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The future of city schools rests with you fearless, bike-pedaling millennials

By Christine Carlson on Aug 26, 2014 10:00 AM

Frequent Inquirer contributor Clark DeLeon recently wrote that he “has given up on the Philadelphia public schools." He asks why any young person would want to send their kids to a public school here and wonders where the fearlessness of “the endless stream of young, hip parents biking their helmeted toddlers through Center City traffic or adjoining neighborhoods” goes when it comes time to choose a school.

I’m not a millennial (I was born at the tail end of the baby boom), but I can answer his question.

For an ever-growing number of young people all around the city, this fearlessness is being directed into supporting their own neighborhood schools. Millennials, it's been said, "think globally and act locally." They are philosophically committed to public education and have chosen to raise their children in the city.  

And they are planning ahead.

When Graduate Hospital area resident Ivy Olesh and a few of her neighbors started the school support group Friends of Chester Arthur in 2009, most of them did not even have children. At the time, middle-class families in the neighborhood fled to the suburbs when their children reached school age. Now, FoCA is nearly 200 families strong.

Working with the school and community, it obtained a grant to install playground equipment and endowed a theater program. FoCA members also help tutor current students and implement technology for the school's teachers. Olesh said young families in her neighborhood are optimistic and are inspired by seeing individual schools shine. Her own son will enter kindergarten at Arthur next year.

One of the newer groups that have formed is 19125 Parents Coalition in Fishtown, supporting Adaire Elementary School. So far, the group has created a system for community members to buy school supplies and organized a teacher appreciation week. They’ve also arranged for trees to be planted around the school’s perimeter. Founding coalition member Denis Devine said, “We’ve endured the terrible news about the cuts and budget crisis besieging the District always knowing that we can make a difference in our own local school.”

Groups like these have formed all over the city, around neighborhood schools like Kirkbride, Southwark, Hackett, Lea, and Mifflin. And although they won’t solve the underfunding and the poverty that plague the District, they can make a positive difference in the quality of individual schools.

These young parents and parents-to-be didn’t march into their neighborhood schools and demand changes. Rather, they approached the school’s principal and simply offered to help. And when the District and principals are open to building relationships with the community, individual schools can flourish.

Right now, there are two opposing forces affecting our neighborhood public schools. The first is negative, driven by the ongoing political assault on urban public education. The result is battle fatigue, pessimism, and fear of the perception of the Philadelphia School District as a whole.

The second is propelled by the optimism of this young, urban-living-loving, civic-minded generation who see the value of economically, racially, and culturally diverse schools and are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved in their neighborhood schools.

I don’t know what side will win out, but I’m rooting for these fearless, bike-pedaling millennials. Ride on -- the future of urban public education rests with you!


Christine Carlson is a public school parent and the founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (13)

Submitted by Jessica Rausch-Esquivel (not verified) on August 26, 2014 11:17 am

Excellent article Christine! I am a 39 year-old, middle-class parent whose Kindergarten age son will soon enter Southwark Elementary’s new Two-Way dual language Spanish Immersion Program. The Principal, EPX Education Committee and local parents have made this school a viable option for all. The excitement is palpable at this local school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 26, 2014 2:40 pm

"Ride on -- the future of urban public education rests with you!"


For middle class neighborhoods.  It's great to know that we can make our neighborhoods function and begin to approximate the far better educational experience in the suburbs in our beloved cities. This only works because catchments are exclusionary in the same way that municpal boundaries are. Just like the suburbs price out the poor, so do many of these neighborhoods.

I'm all for dedicated parents making neighborhood schools better but this isn't fixing urban education.  It's allowing urban education to work for some middle class families while doing absolutely nothing to help the vast majority of poor Philadelphia schools.  That's fine.  It's not like Chester A. Arthur parents can solve all of the problems at Potter-Thomas.  We just need to make sure that this doesn't take our efforts away from the goal of an adequate education for ALL Philadelphians.

Submitted by Jessica Rausch-Esquivel (not verified) on August 26, 2014 3:25 pm

Point well taken. However, I would like to share that we are an out of catchment family and that the fancy program I referred to still has openings!! Some up and coming schools are under enrolled and accept out of catchment families. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 27, 2014 12:19 pm

As a parent of a 1st-grader at one of the 'good' public schools, I am one of these people. I do it for my kid, but even more importantly: for the kids whose parents just cannot. Whether it is poverty, mental health, addiction, or all three, I know that living in our city means I need to pick up the slack where I can. What I am learning is that the more parents who organize and make things happen, more can be gained, whether it is for an individual classroom or the entire school. And that the more parents that step up and unabashedly advocate for our schools, the more likely other parents will join in. The next step is getting the entire community involved to reach those 'other' schools: young adults and retirees and small and large businesses. And there are tons of options: whether by financial support for targeted programs, workplace school supply drives, volunteering of time and expertise, even if from your desk, grant writing, and using the media to advocate. The final step is for all of these volunteers and supporters to continue to push the city and state to fund these programs as a necessity. This is perhaps what holds back support: "If we provide it, we are letting our leaders off the hook." After stepping up for these kids, we need to broadcast it and celebrate it, and use it to send a message. Support needs to say, It is not okay that these basic needs and programs are not being provided to our students. We need to show Philly and Harrisburg how the things that they currently don't provide funding for are integral to our schools. I'm not sure how yet, and that's why we need more and more parents and neighbors even without school-age children to step up.

Thinking even loftier, Philly needs to use its insane rate of growth and improvement as a major city and demand more money from the Large Corporations here. We don't need money gained from dying smokers; we want a steady supply from the big businesses that we serve here. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 26, 2014 6:17 pm

It's not just wealthy Center City-ites who are getting in on the action here. There's a lot of traction around schools that are in further out, mixed income neighborhoods as well. Some of the public schools, like HA Brown in Kensington (which also has a "friends of" group) have a large number of deeply impoverished students alongside some less impoverished ones. Rising tides lift all boats. Most parents who are helping their local public schools are checking out what they can do at the city/state level to improve public education, like voting for candidates who endorse a fair funding model. All said and done, it's ultimately a positive thing that so many more parents are checking out their local public schools instead of suburban real estate listings.

Submitted by Denis Devine (not verified) on August 27, 2014 7:13 am

I love this op-ed, and thanks for quoting me, Christine. I'm not even close to a "millenial," however, I guess I'm a Gen Xer, as are many of my peers. (I am, however, someone who hauls my kids around on my bike).

My group, Friends of Adaire, is part of the 19125 Parents Coalition, which includes our allies at Friends of Hackett and Friends of H.A. Brown, each of whom is doing inspiring work supporting Horatio B. Hackett and Henry A. Brown schools, respectively. 

And we're quite sensitive to the idea that working to support our neighborhood public school, for all the good that can do, won't do much to help the other neighborhood public schools that aren't seeing new investments of parental time and new-business philanthropy that we're trying to harness. That's one reason we've become involved in citywide and statewide advocacy efforts to call for more funding for the Philadelphia public schools overall, not just in our neighborhood. That tide must rise for simple justice, much less to see the improvement our democracy needs.

Submitted by Eileen Duffey (not verified) on August 27, 2014 8:24 am

Thanks for your comment Denis. I am reaching out to you and your allies to join the Caucus of WE at our end of summer gathering this Thursday, August 28 at Frankford Hall at 5pm. Teachers and parents working together have the best potential for strengthening our public schools. When you arrive, just ask anyone in a red caucus shirt to find me so we can discuss this further. Looking forward to meeting friends of Adaire, Hackett, and Brown Schools on Thursday.

Also, for all readers, we know our caucus work  needs to reflect the diversity of this great city. Please, please, please join us from all neighborhoods at Frankford Hall if you are a concerned citizen and are interested in learning more about the work of the Caucus of Working Educators.


End of Summer Celebration // Happy Hour // Reading Series Share-out

When: Thu, August 28, 5pm – 8pm

Where: Frankford Hall, 1210 Frankford Ave, Philadelphia,

Submitted by Wendy Harris on September 10, 2014 10:14 am

Hi Dennis:

The Notebook would like to reprint your comment to this blog post in the "From our readers" section of our print edition. From our readers is a section of the paper much like letters to the editor, where we list comments and opinions to our content. Please let us know if we have permission to reprint this comment in our upcoming Oct.-Nov. edition. We do edit the entries for space and grammar. Please let me know as soon as possible if we have your permission to reprint this. Thanks very much. You can email me at 

Wendy Harris, Managing Editor

Submitted by Denis Devine (not verified) on September 10, 2014 11:13 am

Sure, Wendy, you can republish my comment; thanks for asking! I hope the second graf makes sense as a gentle clarification of Christine's characterization of "my group," Friends of Adaire. We hope to be a small part of the solution. 

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